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The Fat Memoir as Autopathography: Self-Representations of Embodied Fatness

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 219-237 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0016

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In the mid -2000s, several memoirs were published that chronicled women’s weight-loss attempts or detailed the female author’s embodied experience of fatness. Because of the subject matter, some labeled this autobiographical sub-genre “the fat memoir” (see, for example, Allan). In these texts, the author chronicles his or her real life experiences with a fat body. Often, fat memoirs include attempts at weight loss or body transformation, with the memoirists expressing unhappiness with their current weight and lifestyle. This article focuses on six texts by female memoirists published from 2003–2005:1 Kirstie Alley’s How to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life: Reluctant Confessions of a Big-Butted Star (2005), Frances Kuffel’s Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding Myself (2004), Betsy Lerner’s Food and Loathing: A Lament (2003), Wendy McClure’s I’m Not the New Me: A Memoir (2005), Judith Moore’s Fat Girl: A True Story (2005), and Courtney Rubin’s The Weight-Loss Diaries (2004). Because the six texts were published within three years of one another, it is not surprising that they assume certain shared cultural and societal notions of weight and the body. In particular, the female memoir writers frequently describe their fat bodies as diseased and contaminated.

From the Greeks (Braziel 237) to contemporary media and medical representations (Kent 133–34), fat has been depicted as a disease or a symptom of a more serious illness. Fat bodies are “the antithesis of the beauty ideal” and contradict the ideal of bodily health (LeBesco 74). Medically, fat is represented as “a scourge more far-reaching than the bubonic plague, a ‘national health crisis’” that must be eradicated (74). The connections between obesity and other health concerns such as heart disease and diabetes create the illusion that fat is always an indication of more serious problems yet to come. Rather than being viewed as “victims” of disease, fat people are often seen as inherently diseased. Larger society also views obesity as “driving up our health care costs” (Kent 133) and therefore it is something that must be “cured” through diet, surgery, pills, or other forms of medical intervention that will “enact the abjection of fat bodies” (Kent 136).

The medicalization of weight has been critiqued by feminist scholars who believe that “medical practice becomes a vehicle for eliminating or controlling problematic experiences that are defined as deviant, for the purpose of securing adherence to social norms” (Riessman 48). Women with bodies that are heavier than what society dictates as appropriate, beautiful, or healthy can be targeted for the purpose of eradicating difference through the “curing” of obesity. The medicalization of obesity has also established a relationship between fat bodies and morality. As Barbara Webster argues in her autopathography narrative All of a Piece (1989), “illness and disease are seen as punishment; the idea exists that failure implies a defect in character and will” (205). Because the corporeal nature of fatness makes it difficult to disconnect obesity from the person who is obese, the “disease” of fatness becomes a central component of an obese person’s identity and impacts how society treats him or her.

Feminist theorists have argued that “fat is feminine” (Braziel 241; Mosher 169) and therefore the abjectness of the fat body becomes feminized as well. Obesity and the female body are similarly depicted as unruly. Just as the fat body is “pollution” (Braziel 239) that must be contained, society must “funnel female liquidity into whatever space necessary within discourse” (242). When contextualized within these dominant perceptions of obesity, the fat memoir has the potential to be both a brave and a transgressive act. If female memoirists can choose their own representations of the self and claim space for their fat bodies within autobiographical texts, the possibility exists for them to combat popular understandings of obesity as in need of a cure and instead claim alternative, and perhaps more positive, identities outside of medical discourses.

This article, however, illustrates how the memoirists’ potential to destabilize negative representations of the fat body is made ineffective through their undermining self-representations of the fat body as diseased and powerless. In the first half of...

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